Sensationalist subject lines ahoy! For lo, BBC Scotland seem to have successfully created a small controversy with the first episode of a new series called A History of Scotland. A post at News for Medievalists, repeating word-for-word an article in Scotland on Sunday, goes to the length of opposing two reputable historians of Scotland, to wit Clare Downham at Aberdeen and James Fraser at Edinburgh, over this new series, presented by Scottish archaeologist-turned-journalist Neil Oliver. Now, they’re not exactly throwing daggers at each other: Downham is quoted as saying: “I think the BBC are trying their best to be contentious here. I would half agree with some of their assertions, but not the entire package”, whereas Fraser says: “The kind of thing that Neil Oliver is saying is more or less in line with the views that have been taken recently by professional scholars”. And Fraser, who’s been working on getting sense out of annals for years, sometimes stretching even my credulity in so doing, and Downham, who was a student, among other things, of David Dumville, and would therefore be trained to read the sources with absolute maximum scepticism, might be expected to disagree more than that, if anything. But the reporting will get the programme a few extra viewers, I guess, and I can say this with confidence because having seen the NfM post, and finding that the programme is viewable for free online, I went and had a look. And now I’m going to add to the controversy by saying: this is excellent TV, but should have been cut at the thirty-five minute mark and then they could have left out the bit where they resorted to making things up and lying about texts. I do not exaggerate, but I will elaborate. But first the good side, because there genuinely is one.
[Edit: what follows lightly altered from its original state to reflect Alex Woolf’s input about the production process in comments; this basically means that where I was previously being nasty about Neil Oliver specifically I’m now being nasty about the production team who apparently gave him a fixed script.]
There are far far worse ways to pass an hour while you potter with other things, and occasionally make spluttering notes, than watch this. Firstly, the director was keenly aware how photogenic Scotland is, and the country is the real star, Mr Oliver graciously allowing it to fill the screen nearly as much as does he. Several things in this episode, which he narrates in passionately excited style, are not only excellent television but also examples of what the resort to a visual medium can provide that other things can’t. Apart from hordes of re-enactors lurching through the mist in what may or may not be period armour, which I could take or leave I must admit, it brings the Pictish stones (or at least, those currently being laser-scanned in the National Museum of Scotland) into full play as coded but gorgeously-carved visual evidence, and the reconstructed crannog they show early on really made them real to me in a way that I hadn’t previously got. Also, several of the fortified sites that feature just do look really good viewed offshore from a helicopter and that’s hard to argue with. The section in the National Museum of Scotland is guided by Peter Yeoman, and was really good, though they cut very freely between symbol stones, never for example making it clear that there is only half of the St Vigeans “Drosten” stone left but cutting from it to another intact cross slab as if they were the same piece. As a result, I don’t know on what stone was actually to be found an intriguing little grotesque with horns and wings to whom they briefly cut just as Oliver was using the word “angel”. Horns? Hmm. But I can tell you no more because they didn’t tell me.
Of course, this is a program made by Scots for Scots and so it does come over more than a bit nationalistic. And since there is little argument that England did, you know, conquer Scotland time and again and subject it to all kinds of indignities, even if Scotland did give England a royal family and now receives heavy subsidy from England, it’s understandable when the Anglians enter the story exactly at the halfway point that we get sentences like: “England was not enough for Athelstan” (and what was this England thing exactly, hey? not what it is today that’s for sure). An attempt to recast the Battle of Brunanburh (whose location Oliver is certain about, plumping for Bromborough on the Wirral without mentioning the debate of which that is only one side) as a kind of Hastings of the North in which it was attempted to settle once and for all whether Britain would be ruled by “a single imperial power or several independent kingdoms” is, well, at least arguable, though there is this weird double-think going on where when the Angles and West Saxons overrun their borders (obviously exactly equivalent to the modern English-Scottish border… ) that’s evil, whereas if the Picts do it it’s a sign of strength. And because this is TV I rather expect to see the debates cut out and only the production team’s favourite answer presented, and it pains me but it’s the nature of the genre. It’s just a pity that only a very few TV programs can handle not having a definitive answer (Michael Wood wins the crown here I think). So I wasn’t surprised to see the Aberlemno stone read assuredly as a monument of a defeat of the Angles, which I know from good old Leslie Alcock is less than wholly accepted.1
On the other hand some things are just stupid. The Rev. Malcolm King, warden of the current community at Iona, being brought on to explain what the political benefits of conversion might have been for the Picts, should really have been allowed to talk about Ogham to nuance the suggestion that it was principally writing and the administrative potential it contained that would have made Christianity appeal to a king. And of course, there’s really very little evidence of any written administration even in Christian Scotland outside of cloisters and cathedrals till much later. But leave that aside. I’ll also leave aside the assertion that the “Picts were notorious for head-hunting”, which as far as I know comes only from the fact that there are lots of decapitated bodies on Sueno’s Stone, that they had tattoos (which is no better evidenced than the skin-painting that I think more likely) and I’ll even ignore the fact that Oliver was made to call Broichan, chief wizard (magus, is the word Adomnán uses) of Bruide map Maelchon King of Picts a ‘druid’. Or even the idea that in the great Pictish expansionist phase the “Britons and the Gaels had to pay homage to the Pictish king”, for which there is just no evidence or clarity about what it would have meant if they did, and the idea that Picts were a single unified people who can be mapped by their stones, if only because I’ve attacked that last idea elsewhere… And lastly, yes, it is true firstly that Columba did not, apparently, convert many Picts; and secondly that the Gaels in Scotland at least knew Christianity before he arrived, though it is far from clear how widespread it was beyond the leading cenela (do I have that right?) and how much work still needed doing. The Vita Columbae has enough stories about pagans and evil men in it.
But we then get to the stuff that is actually misleading. You could tell it was coming because we switched from named sources to “historical records”. The Vita Columbae, which stands between Oliver’s script-writers and their myth-busting, is “more like a fairy tale than a true story”, but what “records tell us” must never be denied. Mr Oliver does in fact show us a source, and he finds it, to his surprise, in Paris, a manuscript which he describes later as “the birth certificate of Scotland”. In it, he assures us, we find otherwise unknown facts about the first real kings of Scotland. The program hypes up the obscurity of the manuscript, with Oliver asking the French curator whether many people come to see it? She answers, in French, that ‘only specialists in Scottish history’ really use it, “seulement les spécialistes en histoire de l’Écosse”, but the translator says instead that such people as access it do so in microfilm. As you will see, whoever translated the text for Oliver was similarly free with it… Oliver of course gets to sit with the actual codex, and to my eye, because I was still struggling at this point to remember what it must be, it’s quite Gothic, later than I was expecting from his hype. He points at king’s names, and then we disappear into a huge and enthralling reconstruction!
The story is made to revolve around Constantine, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin, because, Oliver reveals, Kenneth is never called King of Scotland; he was a King of the Picts. This is perfectly fair, though Oliver is not allowed to mention that Constantine’s father Alpin is usually thought a Gael; Alex Woolf has recently unhinged that piece of argument, so it may not be needed.2 Oliver goes on to narrate, over dramatic reconstruction events, with lots of bearded men and worried boys sitting by fires looking moody, how the grandsons of Kenneth were not allowed to succeed, and they, cousins Constantine and Donald, were sent off to exile in Ireland when King Giric took power from the do-nothing King Áed by sticking a dagger in him (which is not said, but shown in reconstruction). Then eventually Constantine and Donald come back, but different; once Giric is displaced, the cousins succeed to a Pictish kingship but as Gaels by upbringing, and bringing Gaelic courtiers with them. It’s on Domnall and Constantine that Oliver is made to place the blame for the Gaelic takeover, not Kenneth. Somehow the Gaels and Gaelic bishop whom Giric is said to have installed don’t achieve this in the same way. Oliver then takes us through the rest of Constantine’s long life, which involved fighting King Æthelstan of England twice and losing both times, before finally retiring to Kilrymont (St Andrews) as a hermit.
It’s a fantastic story, and one I really thought I should have remembered. So, I have done some digging to see why I didn’t quite remember it, and the answer is, because Oliver or his writer has enhanced it quite considerably. Let’s start with the manuscript.
The manuscript is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Latin 4126, otherwise known as the Poppleton Manuscript. It is as it stands thirteenth or fourteenth-century (you see? Gothic) but is thought to be copied from an twelfth-century compilation, and obviously the original texts may have been older. May. I discover in web-searching that Oliver has started with this program a campaign to bring the manuscript back to Scotland, which is a sort of fair enough as it does contain many unique texts. The one Oliver means, which he once calls “The Chronicle of the Kings”, making it sound terribly official, is one of these, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. (Oliver translates Alba as ‘Scotland’ throughout, explaining once after several uses that this is “a Gaelic word meaning ‘Scotland'”, which is somewhere where others might disagree…3) Now this manuscript is so painfully obscure and unknown, that there is an online text and parallel translation of it for you to peruse. And if you do, you’ll find a few differences between what Oliver should have read, and the story he is made to tell. Let me quote you some significant bits of Timothy Weeks’s translation, linked there with the text running in parallel.
Áed held the throne for 1 year. The shortness of his rule has left nothing memorable to history; but he was killed in the town of Nrurim.
Oliver’s words manage to imply, by saying that the Vikings raided Scotland for two years and that Áed “did little to stop them”, reigned twice as long as he did, but leave that for a minute, there’s worse to come.
On the other hand Eochaid the son of Rhun the king of the Britons, grandson of Kenneth by his daughter, ruled for 11 years. Admittedly others say that Giric the son of [a gap in the copy, but other texts name his father as Dungal] ruled at that time; because he became teacher and ordinator to Eochaid. In his second year Áed the son of Niall died; and in his 9th, on the very day of St Ciricius, there was an eclipse of the sun. Eochaid, with his alumnus, was then thrown out of the kingdom.
Now Oliver says Giric killed Áed (or at least, “Áed is killed by his own men; all the evidence points to Giric”), and makes him Áed’s right-hand man, Eochaid never being mentioned. He doesn’t actually call Giric king but he certainly doesn’t say there’s anyone else in power. Also, the Irish exile of the heirs is not here. I’m not even sure where he has got it from, although Wikipedia currently notes it as a suggestion of Alex Woolf’s. It’s certainly likely, but we don’t actually know where they went, which rather knocks out the program’s Gaelic acculturation theory. And then Oliver is made to hypothesize that Giric was killed at Dunollie by the returning cousins, because there’s evidence of burning there, which would be fine as a hypothesis if the manuscript didn’t say that Giric was thrown out, so that even if he was killed it can’t have been in the kingdom if the manuscript—I’m sorry, “the records”—are to be believed. Then we reach the cousins.
Donald the son of Constantine held the throne for 11 years. At that time the Norsemen laid waste to Pictavia. During his rule a battle was fought at Innisibsolian, between the Danes and the Scots: the Scots were the winners.
It’s still between Scots and Picts here, you notice. But it’s Donald! or, if I may, Domnall, the returning outcast, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin—ach, I’m going Gaelic from here except in the quotes—Cinaed mac Alpín. There’s nothing of Causantín here, although because Oliver has to make much of him later he is clear that the younger son was present, for which there is no evidence. Oliver does mention Domnall’s death, but none of the events of his reign. Let’s go on.
Constantine the son of Áed held the throne for 40 years. In his third year the Norsemen raided Dunkeld, and all of Alba. Certainly in the following year the Norsemen were beaten in Strathearn, and in his 6th year King Constantine, and bishop Cellach, vowed that the laws and teachings of the faith, and the rights of the churches and gospels, were to be protected equally with the Scots on the hill of Credulity, near to the royal city of Scone. From that day the hill earned its name, that is, the Hill of Credulity.
Aaaand it’s Alba. Though the Scots and… who? The Albanese? still seem to be separate. Oliver says this text calls Causantín King of Alba, but it doesn’t. That’s a different text in the same manuscript, a list of the kings of Scotland, which unlike some texts in this manuscript also survives in other copies. Some of these do indeed call Causantín King of Alba, but one still calls him King of Picts. Meanwhile, across the sea, both Annals of Ulster and Chronicon Scotorum, both reflecting what was at this stage a common text that later became associated with the abbey of Clonmacnoise, first use the title of Domnall, not Causantín. Oliver admits this but for some reason the program pins the real honour on Causantín. And yet it’s clear from the Chronicle itself that it was still possible to see both peoples separately even if Causantín is said, apparently, to have placed them under the same law, which might have been worth a mention but doesn’t get it, pity as it would have been good evidence of the “cultural takeover” that was ‘just as effective as genocide’ of which the two Gaelicised kings stand accused in the program.
So. A manuscript that doesn’t say what this program says it does; extra details silently supplied from elsewhere, these details usually being theories without evidence but otherwise usually being uncredited lifts from Alex Woolf; several kings missed out to streamline the story; an allegation that the text in which the royal titles occur is unique to that manuscript when in fact it’s a different text that isn’t; royal murders imputed without base in the evidence to succeeding kings… I think I’ve made my point. Alternative views better founded are not hard to locate.4 So I can see why Dr Downham had her reservations, there is a serious degree of fast and loose with the truth here, and the fact that the BBC Scotland website labels this as “factual” will bother me for a while yet. Actually the best image for it is a fantastic one they managed to get of a falcon, just after discussing the massive slaughter at Brunanburh. It darts its head down off camera, comes up with something and champs its bill, nom nom nom, and one has to sort of shiver because of the association with carrion. But what it’s actually got in its bill is down, because it’s preening. And that just about sums up parts of this spectacular but seriously distorting programme for me: fluff and preening, and an implication of meat that isn’t really there.
1. Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 172-173, concluding, “This discussion of possible interpretations of the Aberlemno battle-scene in politico-military terms has been necessary to demonstrate their essential frailty.” I do wish I’d met this man.
2. Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 87-93.
3. For example Dauvit Broun, “The seven kingdoms in De Situ Albanie: a record of Pictish political geography or imaginary map of ancient Alba?”, in E. J. Cowan & R. Andrew McDonald (edd.), Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages (East Linton 2000), pp. 24-42.
4. Apart from Woolf, Pictland to Alba, see Broun, “Scotland before 1100: writing Scotland’s origins”, in Bob Harris & Alan R. MacDonald (edd.), Scotland: the Making and Unmaking of the Nation c. 1100-1707. Vol. I. The Scottish Nation: Origins to c.1500 (Dundee 2006), pp. 1-16, with a detailed discussion of the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba pp. 8-14.